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03 September 2020

Bobbie Kimber (1918 – 1993) ventriloquist, miniatures painter

Birkenhead, 1938, with Eddie

​I wrote an initial version in September 2008.

Ronald Victor Kimberley was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham. As a teenage aspiring variety artist he appeared with an all-male cast in Weston-super-Mare in 1935. The ‘leading lady’ quit, and Kimberley being the youngest was given her parts, and ended up doing his vent act without time to change. This went well, and as there was a surplus of male ventriloquists, although very few female ones taking the stage, he took the name Bobbie Kimber and started a stage career at the Theatre Royal, West Bromwich where he was paid £3 10s, but was also ‘given the bird’, that is booed off-stage. However he persevered with warm applause but little national recognition. His dummy at that time was Eddie, known for his infectious laugh. They appeared on television as early as 1939.

Kimberley was in the Army during World War II where he was a Sergeant assigned to do Service entertainments. There he met Janet, ten years older, who was touring with her parents in a family act. They married in 1941. They had a daughter Christine in 1949.

Augustus Peabody
During the war Kimber had  acquired a new dummy, Augustus Peabody. The act then was very successful and Bobbie and Augustus appeared in the major London theatres, including a Royal Variety Show at the London Palladium in 1947. In 1952 Augustus was given the job of announcing the acts for television’s Music Hall, assisted of course by Bobbie Kimber. They also appeared on radio. The Times commented in a review: 'Miss Bobbie Kimber is at once the triumph and surprise of the evening'.

Bobbie was at that time a tall glamorous brunette – she was 6 ft and 14 stone (1.83 m, 89kg), and had grown out her own hair (pinned under a hat when in male mode). Most members of the public, and even theatre critics took her to be a woman, as they did with Mrs Shufflewick, although some viewers would phone the BBC switchboard enquiring: is it a man or isn't it?

However Kimber was reasonably open about his sex. He appeared in Pantomime as early as 1945 when she was one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella at the Regal Theatre in Edmonton, which was broadcast on the BBC - that is, she was playing a Dame part and therefore was implicitly a man.
In December 1946 Kimber wrote an article for the trade magazine, The Stage. He acknowledged that he had been preceded as a female impersonator ventriloquist by Lydia Dreams.

In mid-December 1952, the Daily Mirror ran a front-page story
“Biggest B.B.C. Hoax is Out: “Five million viewers watched TV Music Hall on Saturday Night ... And once again Britain’s TV audience was hoaxed into thinking it was watching a woman. But it was not. For Bobbie Kimber is a man – married eleven years with a daughter of four.”
Bobbie pointed out that “I’ve always been careful to see that the B.B.C. never used any pronouns about me – just Bobbie Kimber, no ‘he’ or ‘she’.”

Gilbert Harding (1907-1960), the closeted-gay television personality phoned a top BBC executive to complain, and then attacked Bobbie in a magazine article: “Is Bobbie Kimber He, She or It?” The BBC contract was up for renewal, but was not taken up, and Kimber only rarely worked for the BBC again, despite many viewers writing in to ask what had happened to Augustus Peabody.

Hannen Swaffer (1879-1962), theatre critic who had written him up as a woman, snubbed him after that.

This was followed by a small article in The Stage:
“Recent Press comments about the sex of Bobbie Kimber the ventriloquist have succeeded only in raising faint smiles among his professional colleagues, who have always been aware of Mr. Kimber’s masterly female impersonation.” 
Kimber remained in demand but was now working as a known female impersonator – and even took to removing a wig at the end of the act.

However by the 1960s gigs had dried up. For a while he ran a pub, but both he and Janet drank too much of the merchandise. Later he drove lorries, and then London Transport buses.

Bobbie returned for a sold-out Cavalcade of Drag Music Hall in April 1969. Augustus was revamped with longer hair, and a moustache - which was fashionable at that time. In January 1972 Bobbie and Augustus appeared on the amateur talent show Opportunity Knocks, which led to a flurry of letters from old fans, and enquiries from agents.

On the 2 February the Daily Mirror ran a positive article on Bobbie, “Geared Up for a Comeback”, written by Clifford Davis, the same journalist who had denounced Bobbie twenty years before. This time he wrote her up as a female impersonator.

But then only 13 days later, the sister publication, the Sunday Mirror, ran the first of three three-page spreads written by Bobbie revealing that she had had transsexual surgery two years before, but not told her wife and daughter until December 1971. “They see me go out to work five days a week dressed as a woman. But at weekends – to please my wife – I dress as a man.” She did not change her driving licence or passport. “My family means everything to me. And this is why, even after my sex-change operation, I am not prepared to register as a woman. This would ruin my marriage completely, and after all we have been through, I love my wife more than ever. She wants me as a man – and for her I stay as one, at least at weekends.” Of her earlier years she wrote: “But my happiness as a man [after marriage] was short-lived. I found myself fighting a constant inner desire to become a woman. … I also started to change physically. Over the years my male parts began to shrink. My chest began to fill out developing into full breasts. The Army discharged me for ‘ceasing to fulfill physical requirements’. … Yet never in my life have I taken any kind of hormone treatment.” In late 1969 Kimber was playing a two-week engagement at the Mediterranean when she was invited to dine by a rich Moroccan who then made a pass. She confessed her sex, and surprisingly the man said: “You know, you really should be a woman. In my country, this can be done quite easily. Would you like me to arrange it?” She agreed and was flown to Casablanca, and was operated on by Dr Burou in January 1970. Bobbie first confided her change to a woman friend, Rene, who ran a pub in Yorkshire. Rene took her shopping in Leeds, and schooled her in the ways of women.  From June to October 1971 Bobbie lived alone in Blackpool where she found work as a toy demonstrator and some weekend and evening work as a ventriloquist. Then she worked as a barmaid until it became apparent that she was allergic to the detergent used to wash the glasses.  During this time she dated a man, and got to the point of cooking for him, but not sleeping with him.


Bobbie placed a half-page advert in The Stage newspaper in late March 1972 , referencing “the Sunday Mirror’s Sensational ‘He & She’ Story”, and was booked by clubs in Sheffield and Barnsley, Nottingham and Manchester, usually as the star attraction. Sidney Vauncez, writing in The Stage said “he has certainly come back with a bang”.

A fellow performer commented:
“I worked in a Revue with Bobbie Kimber at The Devonshire Music Hall, Manchester in the early 70s. She had shoulder length natural greying hair and always dressed as a woman. This was after the News Article about her being Transgender that had regenerated interest in her as a performer. She was like a very nice, polite middle aged woman and in no way flamboyant or brash like the stereotype Drag Act. She did tell me that she was the only person to appear at the London Palladium both as a male and later as a Female. She was very professional, a terrific Vent' and a lovely person.”  
Later in the 1970s the gigs again ran out, and for a while Bobbie worked at a hardware factory in Shoreditch.  Unlike in the 1960s she worked as female and was accepted as such.

Bobbie was also a fine painter of landscape miniatures.

Janet died in 1985, and was described on the death certificate as the wife of Roberta Kimber. Bobbie lasted another eight years, with some assistance from the Entertainment Artistes Benevolent Fund. On her death bed it was discovered that Bobbie never did have a surgical sex change.

*Augustus Peabody was not the US Congressman Augustus Peabody Gardner.

  • Bobbie Kimber. “Impersonation”. The Stage, 5 December 1946: 5.
  • Clifford Davis. “Biggest B.B.C. Hoax is Out”. Daily Mirror, 15 December 1952: 1.
  • “Bobbie Kimber’s Impersonation”. The Stage, 1 January 1953: 3.
  • “Augustus Made Bobbie’s Name”. Portsmouth Evening News, 14 August 1953: 13.
  • Roger Baker. Drag: a history of Female Impersonation on the Stage. A Triton Book. 1968: 189.
  • Ellis Ashton. “Music Hall Miscellany”. The Stage, April 10 1969: 6.
  • Clifford Davis. “Geared Up For a Comeback”. Daily Mirror, 2 Feb 1972.
  • Bobbie Kimber. “He She: Five days a week I am a woman. At weekends my wife wants me as a man“. Sunday Mirror, 13 February 1972: 10-12.
  • Bobbie Kimber “He buys his first dress as a woman; She has a close shave in a girl’s bedroom”. Sunday Mirror, 20 February 1972: 10-12.
  • Bobbie Kimber “He gets his first marriage proposal as a SHE; tells of his life as a man – and a woman”. Sunday Mirror, 27 February 1972: 10-12.
  • Jan Kimber. “Our Incredible marriage”. Sunday Mirror, 27 February 1972: 12.
  • Sidney Vaunces. “Light Entertainment”. The Stage, 18 May 1972: 3.
  • Kris Kirk & Ed Heath. Men in Frocks. GMP, 1984: 28
  • Anthony Slide. Great pretenders: a history of female and male impersonation in the performing arts. Wallace-Homestead Book Co., 160 pp. 1986: 50.
  • Patrick Newley. “Obituaries: Bobbie Kimber”. The Stage, April 29 1993: 41.
  • Michael Kilgarriff. Grace, Beauty & Banjos: Reculiar Lives and Strange Times of Music Hall and Variety Artistes. Oberon Books, 1998: 146.
  • www.christinekimberley.info.
  • Richard Anthony Baker. Old Time Variety: An Illustrated History. Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2011:
  • Oliver Double.  Britain Had Talent: A History of Variety Theatre. Red Globe Press, 2012: 187-8.

------------------

Born 1918 or 1920? In interviews Bobbie said 1920, but also that he was 17 in 1935 when he first appeared on stage.

The social construction of femininity circa 1970. Rene advised: “Always make your own bed and tidy your own room. This is something that women guests always do – but never men. … Don’t get into heated arguments over foreign affairs, politics, football matches or things like that”. Bobbie already knew to hold her cigarette upwards so that the smoke rises. “This stops too much nicotine staining your fingers.” “I’ve had to give up pints of beer and confine myself to the odd sherry or gin. And when I drink as a woman I have to remember to sip – not to down the lot in one big swallow.”

The February 1972 articles are written by Bobbie and this in the first person. However the captions to the pictures are presumably by a sub-editor and use male pronouns.

From a 21st-century perspective, it seems rather odd that ventriloquists as well as gender impersonators were booked on the radio, where they could not be seen – but audiences were required to have more imagination those days, and the broadcasts were supplemented by live appearances and media reports.

Kimber had a career bounce after being denounced in 1952.   I assume that the writing of the Sunday Mirror articles in 1972 was an attempt to repeat that, and in fact did produce another career bounce.  While she apparently lied about having surgery, she apparently did start living almost full-time as female, and as such should be regarded as transgender as well as a female impersonator earlier in life.

My initial 2008 version was mainly based on Roger Baker’s Drag: a history of Female Impersonation on the Stage which was published in 1968, and thus before the 1972 articles in the Sunday Mirror.   In his posthumous second edition, Bobbie Kimber has been removed, and so he did not discuss the later developments.

Bobbie’s daughter Christine added comments – see below.  She insisted that
“He arrived at the theatre as a man and left as one. He didn't reveal himself at the end of his act either because it served him better to have people think he was a woman. There weren't many female vents in those days and the range of his voice made it exceptional for a woman. It gave him a professional edge. It was a gimmick - all part of the game.” 
This would well fit the period before 1952, but after that he was perceived by the public as a female impersonator. After her revival in the early 1970s it seems that Bobbie was mainly living as a woman – at least five days a week. Apparently she told some, as she had written for the Sunday Mirror, that she had had the operation, and others just assumed that she was a woman.

www.christinekimberley.info no longer seems to work.  I suspect an outdated Flash plugin.

I was unable to find a web page of Bobbie’s  miniatures, nor a video of her performance.

-------------

The Reader Comments to the original posting:


Anonymous said...




As the daughter of Bobbie Kimber (his only child now aged 61) I don't find it hard that vents etc were booked for radio. In those days most radio was recorded live from theatres and readio audience heard the laughter from the live audience. Not everyone could get to or afford to got to the theatre and radio was a far more widespresd and popular form of entertainment. And of course all the acts recorded were well known through news paper reviews, magazines, live appearances and the charity work the did.
Anonymous said...
As the daughter Christine Kimberley now aged 61) of Bobby Kimber who worked as a female impersonator and ventriloquist I find it strange to read 'outed himself as a man in 1952' Dad never 'outed himself' he was always a man.The press found out that he was a man and had a field day - that's all. He was good at his job - he worked at it like any male impersonator impersonating a man today. Fact is he was so good at it he fooled a lot of people for a long time.
Zagria said...
Thank you for your comments, Christine. Is your father still alive? Was his secret known to the other performers, or did he arrive at the theatre already dressed as female?

I might well have had written 'outed himself', but actually I did not. The details in Baker and slide are very brief. What a shame that Bobbie Kimber was removed from Baker's second edition.
christine kimberley said...
From Christine Kimberley, daughter of Bobbie Kimber. My Dad died on the 8th of April 1993.To answer your questions: Other performers did know that he was a man. He only dressed as a woman to do his act or for publicity shots and charity appearances and things like that. All his friends knew he was a man. He arrived at the theatre as a man and left as one. He didn't reveal himself at the end of his act either because it served him better to have people think he was a woman. There weren't many female vent's in those days and the range of his voice made it exceptional for a woman.It gave him a professional edge. It was a gimmick - all part of the game. He went to great lengths to study women's body language and mannerisms. Again, in those days there were far more distinctions in the way men and women behaved and carried themselves than there are now. At one point he even had some special corsets made (or as he would say 'constructed' such was the work involved) to give him more curves in the right places. His hands were his only worry but fortunately he could hide them behind his dolls.
This is how it all began: When he first started out as a ventriloquist in his late teens, in the late 1930's, he was working in a seaside town in a summer show. Because the back stage facilities were so bad the town council wouldn't allow any women performers in the show. The boss didn't like this and said that to get round it, one of the performers would have to dress as a woman. Dad was the youngest, and newest member of the company.....so....then one night something went wrong with the running order and Dad didn't have time to change out of his female costume back to male clothes - so - he just grabbed his dolls and went on stage. From there he realised he was on to something and, being the artist he was he put as much work and effort into learing to deceive with his looks as he had put into doing the same with his voice. Voila! Warm regards, Christine.
Pebbles said...
I dont know who "Christine" is but Im afraid I really dont think this is Bobbie's daughter. I knew Bobbie, his wife and daughter in the 70s and Bobbie did not dress as a woman just for his shows and his real daughter Christine would know that!

Bobbie dressed as a woman ALL the time and was thought of as a woman which is how she wanted it. She had spoken often to my husband and I about her operation to become a woman. Her real daughter spent many a time with myslf and my husband and other friends with Bobbie and her mother, with Bobbie dressed in women's clothes. If you ask anyone in the Stoke Newington area, where they lived, about Bobbie they will tell you the same, Bobby was NEVER seen in men's clothes.
Zagria said...
//www.christinekimberley.info now contains lots and lots of photographs of Bobbie Kimber and promises that his autobiography with be added soon. Enjoy.
Anonymous said...
Pebbles. Oh yes I am Bobbie's daughter. I have no idea who you are and would really appreciate your full name - then I might remember spending many hours with you. Bobbie's story was very complicated, believe me, and I have no desire to wash dirty linen in public. You may never have seen Bobbie out of womens clothing but I did. The big tabloid spreads in the 70's did not tell the whole truth - far from it.
Please contact me through my website where you will see part of my collection of photo's of my Dad - and me as a little girl with my family.I also have some unpublished snaps you might like to see if, like me, you are who you say you are. I post my comments as anonymous because I can never get the URL thing to work.
Robert G said...
I was lucky enough to work with Bobbie in the 1970's when we were both employed by a Hardware Factor in Shoreditch. Although she called 'Herself' 'Robbie' at the time, we didn't know her past, eventhough there were rumours about her gender, she dressed as a Woman and was accepted as so and used the Ladies Loo along with all the other women. There was also some talk of her past celebrity status and that she once performed on the same bill as Laurel and Hardy at the Paladium,but, she never mentioned this herself and very much kept herself to herself, except did say she was going to visit her daughter now and again. She was also a fine artist and spent a lot of time (while she was at work) painting miniture Landscapes and I'm proud to say that she actually gave me some of these paintings and I still have them today. However, it wasn't until years after I left that company,that I came across a man who once worked as a stage hand at the Paladium, who said he had met Laurel and Hardy,so when I mentioned Robbie, he told me hew knew 'Him' well, which was a shock to me, as I was young at the time and didn't understand such things. Anyway, If Christine, requires any further information from the time I worked with her Father, please don't hesitate to contact me at bgsky@supanet.com.
Pebbles said...
Thank you Robert for confirming what I said. Bobbie came to my wedding with the woman he had been married to, who was still her wife. I'm appalled how her daughter now seems ashamed of her father. Both Bobbie and her wife came to my wedding and BOTH wore women's clothes and Bobbie was a guest, she wasn't working, and didn't bring her dolls.
Broken Sword said...
I lived in Stoke Newington in the 80s and was a friend of Bobbie's I agree with all that Pebbles wrote. I spent many afternoons with Bobbie admiring her paintings (she painted exquisite miniatures) and chatting about the old days of variety theatre.
Patrick said...
I worked in a Revue with Bobbie Kimber at The Devonshire Music Hall, Manchester in the early 70s. She had shoulder length natural greying hair and always dressed as a women.This was after the News Article about her being Transgender that had regenerated interest in her as a performer. She was like a very nice, polite middle aged woman and in no way flamboyant or brash like the stereotype Drag Act. She did tell me that she was the only person to appear at the London Palladium both as a male and later as a Female. She was very professional, a terrific Vent' and a lovely person.



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